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In my estimation, the average person has a relatively high view of  “debate” as an activity.  In their mind, debate is a competitive endeavor where young people invest time researching current events or philosophy, and, after gathering enough information, engage in a robust yet civil discussion of what they’ve learned, taking care to present their views in the most logically and persuasively effective manner possible.  

If you debate in a league like NCFCA or Stoa, this view is generally accurate.  I say “generally” because there are a number of exceptions that manifest on a fairly regular basis.  For example, topicality debates generally have limited bearing on the substantive elements of the topic area of the year’s resolution.  Definition squabbles tend to be unproductively esoteric at best and whiny at worst.  Add on discussions of new arguments, dropped arguments that were 15 seconds long to begin with, and perhaps a few more, and the list becomes quite long.  

These rounds that transform into a “debate about debate” (or more generally, any debate or part of a debate that doesn’t meaningfully engage with the topic) have two things in common.  One, most people don’t like them.  There is, of course, the occasional team that lives for running topicality, but I’d bet that if everyone else ran topicality against that team as often as they themselves ran it against others, their view would change.  Most people would prefer that every debate was devoid of practices like the ones I’ve listed above because, quite frankly, they’d rather discuss the real issues.  And while those same practices can help to refocus the debate on those issues when necessary, it seems to me that they’re more often used to gain a strategic upper-hand at the cost of a richer debate.  Second, all of these practices, in some way, owe their existence to the fact that debate is fundamentally a game of proof rather than evaluation.  The job of the affirmative policy debater isn’t to prove that their plan is a desirable policy, nor is the job of a value debater to prove that their idea or philosophy is “better” than their opponents: in both cases, resolution-centric debate requires the affirmative to prove that the resolution is true.  The distinction between “what the resolution is getting at” and what the resolution literally and actually requires of the affirmative allows things like frivolous topicality arguments and drop-procedurals to “technically” work.

Therefore, those that would have us debate substance rather than technicalities are caught between a rock and a hard place.  They can either recognize the faults of wholly resolution-centric debate and open the Pandora’s box of kritiks, procedurals, and the like (which they’ve historically rejected wholesale, and for very compelling reasons), or they can fence off Pandora’s box by using the resolution as a (admittedly imperfect) filter for those arguments.  Most prefer the latter option, accepting the problems I described earlier as necessary evils that are lesser than those present in the alternative.  

However (and this is the critical point), perhaps without even realizing it, the status quo of “traditional” debate normalizes certain practices that are, in nature, kritikal, procedural, and so on.  Take for example any policy resolution phrased as “X should do Y.”  The typical non-topical counterplan takes the position “X should do Z instead of Y.”  In principle, there are a virtually infinite number of alternatives to Y, alternatives in the sense that they can’t or shouldn’t be done alongside Y.  These alternatives may or may not be better than Y, and this discussion of compared alternatives is the essence of the counterplan debate.  Strictly speaking, no affirmative team has proved “X should do Y” unless they identify all non-topical alternatives and explain why their plan is better.  From a purely resolutional stance, then, all the negative must do is stand up and point that out, at which point they all but automatically win the round since that burden is impossible or near-impossible for the affirmative to meet.  Few affirmative teams and even fewer judges would take this argument seriously, not because it’s technically incorrect, but because it harms the practice of debate, which is terminally bad due to its impact on debate’s real-world benefits for its participants.  That logic, of course, is the exact premise of the vast majority of non-resolution-centric debate.  There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing, though in the interest of brevity I’ll offer only one more: definition debates.  The resolution’s domain is wholly contingent on the meaning of its terms, none of which are defined by consensus.  Necessarily, the resolution cannot filter out arguments about which definitions of certain terms ought to be preferred (the only exception would be an argument to the effect of “this definition of term X is more consistent with the meaning of the other terms of the resolution,” but that too presupposes a necessarily agreed-upon interpretation of the rest of the resolution).  Thus, debaters turn to arguments about how their definition is more “educational,” “fair,” “reasonable,” and so on, than their opponent’s, which too buys into the non-resolutional point of view.

My point in writing this article isn’t to persuade you to get out there and start running kritiks every other round.  Rather, my goal is to change the way you think about debate, even if your rounds still follow similar patterns: debate cannot fundamentally be about the resolution; some things must escape from Pandora’s box even if we don’t open it all the way.  My hope is that this understanding of debate’s foundation (if I’ve persuaded you of it) serves to give you greater clarity with respect to the function of “debate about debate” arguments, allowing you to navigate such rounds more clearly and persuasively.


Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He competed in Team Policy debate throughout high school and is currently a student at Hillsdale College studying economics and applied mathematics. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, working out, or hanging out with friends and family.

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